CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — One year ago, the J. Reuben Long Detention Center was struggling to find enough personal protective equipment for its staff. With more employees than masks, leadership researched how to safely reuse disposable masks, placed them in bags and let them air out for a few days before letting staff wear it again.
With a shortage of PPE, a constantly-changing inmate population and a setting that inherently makes it difficult to socially distance, it had quickly had to learn how to face a pandemic.
“It was this incredible, developing challenge that we were trying to adapt to in our community who could not separate,” said Marcus Rhodes, the director of the detention center, who took the helm right before the pandemic hit.
Of the 375 COVID-19 cases Horry County Government has had among its staff, 75 have been among J. Reuben Long Detention Center employees, according to an update sent Friday from the county. With a staff of 305 employees, that means that 24.59% of the jail’s employees have tested positive for COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic.
Statewide, about 8.71% of the population has tested positive, according to information from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Census Bureau.
As of Friday, there were two detention center employees out after testing positive, one person awaiting test results and 73 who had been diagnosed and recovered.
It’s the highest number of diagnosed employees in any division of county government, followed by 61 in fire/EMS services.
The detention center saw its first positive case in an employee in April, according to Rhodes.
At the beginning, he said the facility spoke to DHEC and reviewed a 28-page protocol for detention centers that was published from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We printed that and we went through it and we tried to follow all of the protocols that we could,” Rhodes said. “Not everything is practical. We didn’t always have enough space to separate early on.”
In those first months, county government limited travel for work purposes. The detention center asked its officers to alert them if they were planning on traveling so they could arrange for them to have an alternative placement when they returned to prevent them from being in immediate contact with others. It then started running all trips — including vacations — through an infection control officer who would evaluate the risk for exposure. The employee would then be given education on safe practices and be encouraged to follow CDC guidelines on wearing gloves and a mask.
Rhodes said many officers canceled both local and more distant trips to see family.
A DHEC official did a walkthrough of the facility, the detention center created more space in dining halls for inmates and officers became required to get tested monthly.
Now, when officers arrive for a shift, they are required to wear a mask, are asked a series of questions about travel and symptoms, and undergo a temperature check. If an employee isn’t feeling well, they are asked to get tested, go home and then stay there until they receive a negative testing result.
During the pandemic’s first months, employees who were in contact with someone who tested positive were sent home or assigned to an isolated duty.
“We were able to do that for a while because the numbers were lower community-wise and facility-wise,” Rhodes said.
Now, employees who have been exposed to someone who has been diagnosed are required to wear a N95 mask until they’re able to be tested. CDC guidelines for high-density critical infrastructure workplaces allow for asymptomatic employees who have been exposed to a positive case to remain working if certain guidelines are followed.
He said the facility has seen bumps in cases following Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the rest of the state also saw increases.
If multiple employees are out sick at once, then other officers work overtime to cover the shifts.
“We have had staffing challenges,” Rhodes said.
He said he’s proud of his employees, calling them brave officers who believe they’re doing a service to their community.
Now that a vaccine is available, he said that some officers have gotten the shot. Rhodes does not know how many employees have been vaccinated.
The vaccine is not mandatory for employees.
About a year into the pandemic, the facility had adopted new procedures to keep case counts low, which include having mail sit for a few days before it’s distributed, doing more cleaning, having inmates masked and continuing to exclusively do virtual visitations for the public.
Rhodes said DHEC, which has a facility across the street, has been a valuable partner.
“I have never failed to be able to get somebody on the phone from DHEC,” he said. “We can’t really overstate our appreciation for that and their guidance.”